The Tomb Is Empty

*This is not a short-short. It’s pretty long. Just fair warning. Patience with this, as well. It may read, at points, like a sermon or a polemic. It’s not.

Down the hill and up the trail from Otis and Mercy Warren’s plot is a row of headstones, one of which the man notices because of its American flag. The man is at Burial Hill in Plymouth, the cemetery of Governor William Bradford and his family, members of the Mayflower, the first free black woman in the colony, and many Revolutionary and Civil War dead. He squats and looks at the stone: John K. Alexander, Died at Fredericksburg May 12, 1864, Co. C, 29th Massachusetts Volunteers. The man knows that the stone is incorrect: May 12, 1864, is the Union attack on the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania, about fifteen miles away from Fredericksburg. But Fredericksburg is an infamous town in the North at that time because of the slaughter before Christmas in 1862. It is more easily recognized among the populace. The man snaps a photo of the headstone and moves on.

The memorial to the crew of the Benedict Arnold is a bit further up the path. As he walks among the dead, glancing at many of the ancient stones that are now illegible, he recalls a night that he and his brother were drifting off to sleep. They still lived in the San Antonio, Texas, house.

“You ever think about eternity?” Stephen asked that night out of the blue.

“A little,” said the boy. “Like, what do you mean?”

“Like, never dying. Just going forever and ever and ever and ever. What will we do?”

The boy looked over at his brother. Stephen had both his hands behind his head, as he stared at the ceiling. Their ceiling was textured and had tiny dots of glitter that sparkled in the light cast by their nightlight.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s supposed to be great. We’ll be with our families.”

“It freaks me out,” said Stephen. “I mean, it really scares me.” Suddenly, he sat up quickly. “I’m gonna go talk to Mom.”

That was one time their mother didn’t get mad at them for being out of bed . . . because it scared her too, and her best answer was, “I don’t know. We don’t understand it. But if God gives it to us, it must be good.”

Now, the man stands at the obelisk for the Benedict Arnold. The old Court House down the hill is on the ghost tour because the seventy-seven dead were stored there until they could be identified. Supposedly, they walk the basement and sometimes appear in the windows.

***

That Sunday, he is teaching the teenage Sunday School class; a teacher is missing, so he has both Grant and Lucia today, along with about fourteen other kids. There is the typical low murmur of chatter among them when he opens class.

“All right, children,” he says. “Why baptism? And before you raise your hands or shout out, I will not accept the normal answers that are locked in your tiny little brains. Let’s accept it as a given that it is a commandment, that it is for the remission of sins, that it involves a covenant, and that even Jesus was baptized. All of those are off the table. Now, why baptism?

They all fall quiet for several long moments. “To get the Holy Ghost?” Vaughn finally says.

“True,” says the man, “but lame. Everyone knows that. Think harder please.”

“I don’t really understand the question,” Alec says.

“If baptism is a covenant with God, and you promise to keep his commandments and he promises to give you eternal life for doing that, why do you have to have someone with authority put you under the water? Why do you not go out into the woods or stand on a rock or on your bed and lift your hands to the sky and yell, ‘Oh, God, I promise to keep all your commandments’?”

Grant smiles at him. “Uh, cuz that’s not what he said to do? It’s like a parent. ‘Because I said so.'”

The man picks up an eraser from the chalkboard. “Boy, Imma throw this at you and ruin that tie.”

“It’s your tie, Dad. “

“Shut your face, Son.” He puts the eraser back down. “Any answers in your tiny little brains?” They all stare at him blankly. “Great. Awesome. So then I guess you have no idea why we do baptisms for the dead either.”

Alec clears his throat. “You can’t baptize a spirit. You can only baptize a body.”

The man mimics Alec’s voice: “‘Oh. You can’t baptize a spirit. Only a body.’ Duh. But, knuckle head, you don’t even know why we baptize a living body. It sure would be a lot easier if the dead could get to the other side, we taught them the Gospel, and then they all raised their hands to the sky and said, ‘Oh, God, I promise to do all you command me to do.’ Wouldn’t it?”

They all nod. “Yeah, actually,” says Vaughn.

“Even better, why do we have to do all these baptisms when we have no hope of ever getting all people?”

“Won’t we do lots of that in the Millennium?” Alec says.

“You’re making my point,” says the man. “We can’t find all the Native Americans because there are no records going back to the land bridge. We can’t trace all black people in even just the United States because white people treated them like property and kept almost no records of who gave birth to whom. So God is going to have work all of that out anyway. So why does he bother to ask us to do it?”

“I’m so confused,” another boy mutters.

Lucia folds her arms. “Well, maybe the ones we get to before then get salvation earlier.”

The man shrugs. “According to the Doctrine & Covenants, time is only measured by man not God. It’s all an eternal now to Him, so who cares when it gets done? In fact, by that logic, these people are already saved.”

They are all silent again. He paces around the front of the room. He is content to have silence, to let them stew in it.

Lucia shakes her head and breaks the silence: “I’m sorry. What’s the question again?”

The man takes a deep breath. “Why baptism? Why not just say you’ll follow God? And why baptism for the dead? Why can’t the dead just say they will follow him?”

They all have blank expressions. He smiles at them. “This is the best part. I will not answer this for you. Start looking up scriptures to see if you can find answers. We will put answers on the board, and if you haven’t narrowed in on some good ideas, go home and ask your parents. Talk it out with them. Come back next week ready to share. I’m gonna bet not even half your parents can answer the questions. But give it a shot anyway.”

Half an hour later, they have a handful of mediocre ideas on the board. He calls on Grant to say closing prayer, and they head out for their final class of the day.

***

That afternoon, the man looks up John K. Alexander on FamilySearch. It turns out Lauren is fifth cousins with him. John is family. “Huh,” the man mutters.

Lauren is resting on the couch and looking at her phone. “What’s that?”

“That guy from the 29th Massachusetts I told you about. He’s a cousin of yours. A distant cousin. But still.”

“Cool,” she says. “What’s his deal again?”

“Killed at Spotsylvania,” he says.

“Right,” she says.

“Easy on the enthusiasm,” he says.

She rolls her eyes and takes a deep breath. “Sorry. I don’t know this stuff as well as you. I don’t even get most of it. I can’t wrap my brain around it. My brain doesn’t work like yours.”

“It’s cool,” says the man. “John and his family will be at my huge homecoming party when I die. All the dead people I saved . . . they’re all gonna meet me. Your party might be a little lonely, though. I’ll try to be there, as long as I’m not busy that night, since I will be in high demand as a savior on Mount Zion.”

“I don’t get to ride on your coattails?”

He shrugs. “I guess you can. If you’re nicer to me.”

“Oh good grief.”

***

Grant is a mid-level football recruit. It is spring, and they take a trip to hit a number of junior days and camps at Wagner, Lafayette, Richmond, and Lehigh. They plan to sandwich around that some stops at some of the battlefields in Northern Virginia, and then they will go to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens. After Wagner and the Pennsylvania schools, they swing through Fredericksburg and see the stone wall at Marye’s Heights where the Confederates took refuge and killed the charging Union at a rate of 3 to 1. Then, they head out to Spotsylvania. The man drives them all to the Mule Shoe auto tour stop. They get out and follow the path around to the apex of the Mule Shoe. He gathers the kids and says, “You see the earth works?”

“What are earth works?” says Lindsay. She is twelve, and she is having anxiety on the trip–her first experience with it.

“See the grass-covered mounds?” the man says. “And what look like trenches?”

“Oh, okay,” says Lindsay.

“The Confederates dug those up here. And they cut down trees to make timber works.” The man turns and points across the field. “The Union was across that entire field, and they came in a massive assault across that field to this area here. The fighting went for twenty-two hours straight. The longest continuous fight of the whole war. And it was hideous. The Confederates in their trenches would stick their muskets through gaps in the timber works and shoot men on the other side point blank. The wounded fell into mud-filled trenches, and the living walked all over them, drowned some of them as they fought.”

Lucia has her arms folded, her phone in her right hand. “That’s disgusting.”

The man motions, and they walk to their right a couple of hundred yards. “And this is the eastern salient. Early that morning, the 36th Massachusetts was out that way. One of mom’s ancestors, a distant cousin from Plymouth, was with them.” The man pulls up his phone, flips through to Find a Grave, pops open the entry on John Alexander. “The 29th had been merged with the 36th. And John was with them that morning. They started attacking around 4:30 in the morning. Some time between then and 7 am, John was killed.”

“He’s our ancestor?” says Lindsay.

“Not mine,” the man says. “But one of yours and Mom’s. He was from Plymouth. He enlisted in 1861, fought at almost every major battle, and died here in what, to him and his family, would have been a foreign land.”

“Huh,” says Lucia. “That’s sad.”

“His headstone is at Burial Hill in Plymouth,” says the man.

“The haunted cemetery?” Grant says.

The man laughs. “Well, it’s on the ghost tour, yes.”

“He died here, but he’s buried there?” Lucia says.

“I guess so,” says the man.

“So someone had to come down here and get him?” Lucia says. “That must have been awful.”

The man points out over the field. “Everything about it was awful. They attacked a fixed position, which is almost suicide unless you have overwhelming numbers. By the end of the twenty-two hours, the dead lay in heaps as high as a man’s waist.”

“That’s really awful,” says Lucia.

Lauren glances at her phone. “Do you wanna keep going, dear? We still have a ways to drive to get to the hotel.”

The man sighs and nods. “Sure, sure. Just trying to get our children to appreciate the sacrifices of their forefathers.”

They start back toward the car. “I get it. And it’s really great. I just don’t want to be up all night. We have a big day ahead tomorrow. And lots more history to cover.”

***

That night, they are on a ghost tour that covers Shockoe Bottom in Richmond–the epicenter of the slave trade, where enslaved persons were unloaded onto docks and then put up for auction. Their guide is a student from VCU’s drama program; she’s dressed in period attire and has adopted the persona of a southern belle who was drowned by her former fiance. They have been to the former auction blocks, which are now apartments. They have stopped at the former dock where the slave ships came in. She has told a story of her own drowning at the site, and the man muses about whether her character is based on a real person.

Now, they are standing in a small green meadow underneath a freeway overpass. On the other side of one of the overpass pillars is a VCU building.

“This spot is haunted by all manner of troubled spirits,” their guide says. “It used to have a bluff around it, and the bottom of the bluff was a pit. Many enslaved people became ill on the trip over. Those too sick to work and be auctioned were frequently killed and tossed in the pit. Other enslaved people stood over the pit and buried the bodies under a thin covering of dirt. The smell was terrible. Newly arrived captives who resisted at all would be executed and thrown in the pit. Then, later on, when Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion was disrupted before it could happen, Prosser was brought down here and hanged. He, too, was thrown in the pit.”

“Ugh, that’s horrible,” says Lucia.

The guide nods. “On warm nights, locals say they can smell death, and sometimes they see shadows walking around with no people casting the shadows. It used to be even worse, and no one knew why. That was when this was a VCU parking lot. But archaeologists figured out what this site was, and VCU converted it to a meadow. Soon, there will be more signs and trees as a memorial. Turning it into a memorial has helped settle the spirits.”

They fall quiet for several long moments, and the man is conscious of the traffic passing overhead, even as a soft wind blows the grass.

“Any questions, y’all?” the guide says. They shake their heads. “All right, then. Let’s move on to our last spot.”

***

The Sunday School class is staring at him blankly. A couple of kids talked to their parents but came back with very little. This is expected.

“All right,” says the man. “Grant, open to Romans 6. Be ready to read verses three through six. Alec, look up the sacrament prayers and be ready to read the prayer on the bread.”

Grant rolls his eyes. “What book is Romans in?”

The man sighs. “You make me proud every Sunday, Son. The New Testament.”

Alec flips open his scriptures. “Wait, where are the sacrament prayers again?”

“How about you use the topical guide and your tiny little brain to figure it out?” says the man.

Once they’re done flipping, the man says, “Get ready, everyone. Grant is going to read us the answer to why baptism. Go on, Grant.”

Grant clears his throat and reads:

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:

Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

“Okay, everyone hear it?” the man says. They stare at him blankly. “I’m not answering this myself. What are the verses telling us?”

Finally, Vaughn says, “Baptism is a symbol?”

“Yes, it’s a symbol. Of what?”

“Life and death?” Vaughn says.

“Good. And what else?”

Alec sits forward. “Our sinful selves dying and our new selves being born.”

The man nods. “Baptism is a commemoration of the Atonement and everything wrapped up in it. Physical life and death. Spiritual life and death. So why do we do baptisms for the dead?”

“I guess as a symbol,” says Vaughn.

“What good does that do for the dead?” says the man.

“I don’t know,” Vaughn says.

The man paces and says, “I bring at least a hundred names a year to the temple for baptism. I’ve done that for five years now. That’s five hundred times I or a loved one has been baptized for an ancestor. That’s five hundred chances to reflect on what baptism symbolizes, to participate in a physical symbol of the Atonement.” He turns to Alec. “Alec, according to the sacrament prayer, what is it that allows us to have the Spirit with us at all times?”

Alec looks down quietly for several moments, then says, “That they do always remember Him, that they may have His Spirit to be with Him.”

The man looks at all of them. “The point is to remember. We take the sacrament weekly to remember. We do baptisms for the dead to remember. And when we do, we remind ourselves that the Atonement is something we couldn’t do for ourselves. Jesus performed it by proxy for us, and we act like Him when we do something by proxy for the dead. The whole point is to remember and to act like HIm.” Everyone is quiet. “And quite honestly, we suck at remembering, and my guess is that by next Sunday, when I ask you what the point of baptism is you won’t remember.”

There’s quiet again until Grant says, “What did you just say, Dad?”

They all laugh. The man rolls his eyes. “Well played, Grant.”

***

It is a gray Memorial Day, and they are standing over John K. Alexander’s grave with a dozen carnations–four red, four white, four blue. This will not be their only stop. They have a handful of other distant family members to visit as well. The man pulls up Find a Grave and says, “Okay, so anyone remember John’s story?”

Grant, Lucia, Lindsay, and Graham all stand around the headstone and look down.

“He got killed in the Civil War?” Lindsay says.

“Great job, Lindsay,” the man says. “Especially since that is written clearly on the stone.” The man scrolls down to read the biography a contributor has posted. He notes how John was from Plymouth, served with the 29th, fought at numerous battles, got moved to the 36th, and was killed at Spotsylvania. Then he notices a new addition to the biography he hadn’t read before. He reads it aloud.

“Probably a cenotaph at Burial Hill. [Note: Union dead recovered from the Wilderness and Spottsylvania Court House battlefields following the war were interred at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Those who were not identifiable, as probably was the case with John Alexander, were buried as an ‘Unknown.’}

“According to the Old Colony Memorial Newspaper, April 13, 1866:
John K. Alexander was killed at the battle of Spottsylvania Court House; May 12, 1864, and his body was buried on the field. He was unmarried.”

The man stares at it those sentences. Then Grant says, “What’s a cenotaph?”

“An empty tomb,” the man says.

“So he’s not here,” says Lucia.

The man shakes his head. “No, he’s not here.” He brings up Fredericksburg National Cemetery. He runs a quick name search. There’s a James Alexander from Company A but no John Alexander from Company C. John Alexander left his home in 1861, and he disappeared.

“So we’re putting flowers on a headstone with no body,” says Lucia.

“Yes,” says the man. “That’s what we’re doing.”

Lucia shrugs. She pulls out a red flower, a white flower, and a blue flower. She puts all three at the base.

“We’re all set here, right?” Lauren says.

The man nods. “Yeah. Bridgewater next. Y’all go ahead. I’ll catch up.”

They start back down the path. The man stares at the headstone. The only thing he can think of that is more pointless than what they have just done is actually placing a headstone over a place that has no body. By now, he knows enough of John K. Alexander to know that he was not married, that he had siblings, that his brother named his first son after him. He supposes there might be some generations of nieces and nephews alive today. But he thinks more about John’s parents, Samuel and Charlotte. So they just came here on birthdays and other commemoration days and stared at a stone with his name? Did the place mean anything to them other than that it was where they planned to be buried too? He thought of visiting his grandmother’s grave and his mother saying, “Cemeteries don’t do much for me. My mother isn’t here.” But he feels the opposite–he feels he must see his father’s grave when he visits Utah, and he must also visit Grandma and Grandpa Hill, Granny and Grandpa Laws, Aunt Fern, and various other relatives. He does this and never knows quite what to do once he has laid a flower down; in Orem, even that feels dumb since the stones are all flat so the city can just mow over everything without having to navigate around standing stones. If you leave a pinwheel or a vase, they pick it up and throw it away so the mower can keep going.

This? This seems useless–visiting a stone that marks nothing. And it bothers him that John’s actual resting place is unknown.

He looks up and sees his family near the gates of the cemetery. He follows after them.

***

Over time, he pulls together the known facts. The 36th was the extreme left flank of the IX Corps assault. They charged over open ground, taking fire from the tree line. When they drove the Rebels from the trees, a group of Rebels attempted to swing around and out flank them. Companies C, B, and K were ordered to turn ninety degrees and hold off the flanking maneuver. It is likely that John was killed in that interval. They had started the attack at 4:30 am on a gray, wet morning across muddy ground. John was probably dead by 5 am. He would not have seen the excitement of the temporary breakthrough off to their right nor would he have participated in the bloody repulse of the counterattack. Nor would he have been there for the countercharge that captured enemy trenches, which was then undone by a flanking maneuver. At the end of that brutal twenty-two-hour stretch, both sides’ lines remained where they had begun, and the 36th was down one-hundred seven men.

The next day, the Rebels pulled back a half mile, and the Union moved in. The ground was carpeted with the dead of both sides. To make it more tolerable, the living put the dead in the abandoned trenches and kicked dirt over them. When the armies abandoned Spotsylvania a few days later, many of the dead remained unburied. A Confederate cavalryman observed, “The dead Yankees are heaped up in piles half as high as a man, in front of our Breastworks, and all around on the Battlefield the dead yanks are lying just as thick as they can be, and none of them burried [sic],” adding, “they will all rotten on top of the ground.” A month later, the First Maine Cavalry passed through and found the ground still covered with “Federal and Confederate dead…lying around in all directions.” John may well have putrified and decomposed with the others in the late spring suns. Like most of the men, whatever could have identified him decomposed or disappeared. Of the fifteen thousand dead in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, only about three thousand have been identified.

The man would like to know where John most likely fell. He would like to know where his initial burial might have been and then where those bodies likely wound up in the National Cemetery. He writes to the Fredericksburg National Park, and they have some records they have been working on the last few years. They promise to get back to him.

He finds the 36th regimental history in an online library. He is particularly and bitterly struck by this: John was a three-year enlistment; his muster-in date was May 22, 1861, and he was killed May 12, 1864. The history notes:

“On the 14th the men belonging to the Twenty-Ninth Massachusetts, whose term of service expired that day were sent to the rear to be transported to Washington for muster-out. They were followed, on the 16th, by the remainder of that regiment, seventy-six in number, whose terms of service expired at various dates between the 14th and 21st of May. Immediately after the action of the 12th the attention of General Burnside was called to the circumstances of the case, and he at once ordered that the survivors should now have their discharge. . . . Eight of these men [of the 29th], . . . having but a few, some of them only two, days longer to serve to complete the honorable record of three years’ service, went into that battle and sealed their devotion by pouring out their blood and dying, in defense of the nation’s honor. To us it seemed hard, indeed, that these men could not have been sent to the rear that day.”

The man learns that, after the Civil War, the U.S. government made it policy to give every family of a man killed in service a headstone. So the Alexander family, having no other place to put it, had it set in the family plot.

When the man reflects on John’s life, his death, his disappearance, his marked non-grave, he considers the stupidity of the war, and then he thinks of the nameless who were slain on the bluffs of Shockoe Bottom, buried anonymously without their names being recorded, without anyone even carving a pointless stone. And he figures that there is some perverse symmetry in this–that John and six hundred thousand others poured out their lives for the crimes committed against the defenseless and nameless. John lived in Massachusetts, which had barred slavery eighty years before. He had nothing to do with these laws or decisions, but he paid anyway.

Years later, the man returns to Spotsylvania with Lauren and the three younger children. They hike the 5.7-mile Spotsylvania history trail and pass over the ground where the 36th walked and where John may still lay, even now. Historians and Civil War buffs call it sacred ground. Sacred to whom? Before the white man brought small pox, how many native peoples had wandered this land, had lived, fought, and died on it only to disappear without a name and without a trace?

Why does the man care about a man who is not his relative? Of whom there are no pictures or writings even? He knows that part of the answer lies in how he projects his fears and desires onto the world. He hopes that if it’s not all true, his system of beliefs and the rituals he performs, someone might adopt him and his memory and let some form of him live on a bit longer.

He considers Moses in the Pearl of Great Price who, in Chapter 1, saw God face to face and was overwhelmed by His glory such that he lost all his strength for many hours. The man looks out on the rolling grass across from the Mule Shoe and the gray sky touching down on the tree line in the distance. He can hear traffic nearby on the paved road that used to be dirt, a dirt road that was used to funnel the mighty combatants to that moment in time where John K. Alexander’s existence was erased. The traffic flows by with no consciousness of anything significant happening here. And the man thinks, God or no God, Moses’ next observation is correct: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.”

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